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Canadian Foreign Minister Hoping to Meet with Egyptian President to Try and Free Mohamed Fahmy

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is holding a second round of meetings to try and liberate Canadian al-Jazeera journalist Mohamed Fahmy.

by Justin Ling
Jan 20 2015, 10:09pm

Foreign Minister John Baird. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

As world leaders congregate in Davos for the World Economic Summit, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister, John Baird, has a specific bit of lobbying on his mind: freeing jailed journalist Mohamed Fahmy.

Baird is hoping to take his petition straight to the head of the Egyptian government.

Last week, he had a tete-a-tete with his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukri, in a concerted effort to liberate the imprisoned journalist. Fahmy was arrested by Egyptian security in December, 2013; he was then tried and convicted in what was widely condemned as a sham trial last June, and sentenced to seven years in prison.

Efforts from the Canadian, American, and Australian governments to get Fahmy sprung have, thus far, made to very little progress. Fahmy's family, Amnesty International, and now Fahmy himself have all called for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to get more directly involved.

Last week, Fahmy became publicly indignant with the federal government's apparent disinterest in his case. He has contracted Hepatitis C and dislocated his shoulder while being held in notoriously brutal Egyptian prisons for more than a year.

"I understand that the ability of the Canadian government to help me is limited by the rules of diplomacy," Fahmy said in a statement. "But I do believe that Prime Minister Harper could do more to obtain my release if he were to directly intervene in our case."

The Prime Minister has called for Fahmy's release, but doesn't appear to have put any of his own skin in the game, instead leaving the lobbying up to his ministers.

But the under-the-radar diplomatic strategy that has defined Ottawa's efforts to liberate Fahmy thus far appears to be getting a little more aggressive. A senior government source confirmed to VICE that Baird will meet not just with Egypt's foreign minister, but that he'll also be looking to sit down with President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi himself to demand Fahmy's release.

It's believed that previous back-channelling and private negotiations were done in an effort to avoid needling el-Sisi's nascent government and to allow Cairo to save some face in the process.

Baird travelled to Cairo to meet with Shoukri, and the main purpose of the meeting was to secure Fahmy's release. Baird spent a large portion of their hour-long meeting—half of which was behind closed doors—angling for Fahmy's release, according to a senior government source.

"Obviously as Foreign Minister, the Minister is a conduit to the rest of his government," Baird told journalists while in Cairo. "I would characterize the meeting in that regard as constructive, worthwhile and we look forward to resolving the issue. I wasn't naïve to suggest that I would come and the situation would be resolved."

While Baird left that meeting without securing the journalist's release, he sat down afterward with Fahmy's family and was, according to the government source, optimistic, despite telling them not to expect Fahmy's imminent release.

What Baird did get was an agreement for another meeting, with the same government source confirming that, while in Davos, Switzerland, he has been promised yet another sit-down with Shoukri—his fifth since last June.

The source expects the meetings could offer the Egyptian government an out for the issue, which has turned into a blight on the el-Sisi regime, one already considered by some a military dictatorship. The same el-Sisi government is widely criticized for straying from the democratic principles laid out in the Arab Spring, and back to the generally authoritarian rule of ex-president Hosni Mubarak.

Egyptian courts have already nullified the first conviction, which was marred with controversy, and ordered a new trial.

Speculation centers around the idea that el-Sisi might release and deport the two foreign al-Jazeera journalists—Fahmy, along with his Australian colleague Peter Greste. El-Sisi bestowed onto himself the power to do exactly that in November.

The office of Lynne Yelich, minister of state for consular affairs, told VICE they're preparing for that eventuality.

"Canada's Ambassador to Egypt continues to engage senior Egyptian officials to gather more information on Mr. Fahmy's possible deportation," a spokesperson said.

There's a problem with that plan, however. Baher Mohamed, the third al-Jazeera journalist convicted alongside Fahmy and Greste, cannot be deported, as he is an Egyptian citizen.

That means having the courts acquit the three men could be on the table, but that could take considerably more time.

But if Baird can get face time with the Egyptian president, it would be a clear sign that Cairo is looking to get things moving.

That said, Australian President Tony Abbott tried to pressure el-Sisi into releasing the prisoners in June, to little avail.

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